The New Objectivity

Stamps_of_Germany_(DDR)_1980,_MiNr_2512

I don’t know if last week’s Princess Elisabeth Antarctica advances the cause of architecture, promotes the concept of architecture, or sustains the myth of architecture, and I don’t think I care. What is becoming increasingly irritating is that some people believe that buildings like this are mere technical exercises outside the scope of architecture.

Without a vision, architects become no more than technicians, and it is our ability to shape functional requirements to create a piece of “magic” where we can really flourish as a profession.
Jerry Tate (from an article “Why is Sustainability Boring?
BD Online 6 November 2012)

The role of aesthetics in sustainable buildings is not only about visual and psychological delight – it is also a powerful driver for change, when the expression is spectacular and when sustainable elements are clearly visible and working. It is a radical force in symbolically representing an alternative future.
Toby Horrocks (from an article “Doing Less is More”  architectureau) 12 March 2012)

But we cannot only be concerned with the objective side of architecture’s performance.
Patrik Schumacher (The Autopoeisis of Architecture, p38)

WHY IS THERE THIS SPLIT?
FROM WHEN DID IT HAPPEN?
AND WHY DOES IT PERSIST?

1927

Towards a New Architecture first printed in English
The Bauhaus school completed in Dessau
Competition for the League of Nations held in Geneva
The Weissenhoff Exhibition held in Stuttgart

If you remember, Towards a New Architecture began by saying how great engineers were and how they were making buildings that truly represented the age. This is not true. They were making things how they thought they ought to be made. It was LC who said that they represented the age as if this was a) a good thing and b) something that needed doing.

Now, the Bauhaus building was completed in Gropius’ architectural office, not the Bauhaus itself but, mainly due to Gropius promoting his legacy in the US, it is now believed to represent everything the Bauhaus stood for.

The Bauhaus Dessau architecture department fro...

The Bauhaus Dessau architecture department from 1925 by Walter Gropius (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the ADGB Trade Union School is the first Bauhaus-designed building. Hannes Meyer received the commisssion shortly after his nomination as the new director of the Bauhaus at the end of April 1928. By this time, Gropius had left, along with his CV. Similarly, Meyer’s Houses at Dessau from 1928 originated in the Bauhaus. If anything, this is what Bauhaus architecture was. We should also remember it was Meyer who was responsible for architecture being taught at the Bauhaus anyway. (Before we leave, here’s a link to some photographs showing Meyer’s urban work in Russia post-1930.)

In the League of Nations competition (thanks Fergusonstudio),

Le Corbusier placed the emphasis of his design on the assembly hall, with a processional courtyard leading up to the main entry and the rear elevation prominently expressed on the lakeside.  The various bureaucratic functions of the complex were housed in linear blocks raised above the landscape, so that one could pass freely underneath the office buildings.  The overall effect was that of “a communal machine for enlightened, well-meaning functionaries whose life would be daily nourished through contact with nature,” Curtis [William, the historian] noted.


By contrast, Meyer sought a more Constructivist approach, with the emphasis placed on the secretariat in an open-framed tower that recalled some of the visions of the Russian avant-garde.  He used a highly repetitive ordering system throughout the complex with the only expressive element being a bulbous glass roof over the assembly hall.  Meyer intentionally played down hierarchical associations as he saw the complex as being “an entirely open, egalitarian forum.”

Corbusier’s was a nice “communal machine for enlightened, well-meaning functionaries whose life would be daily nourished through contact with nature” whilst Meyer’s was  Constructivist and “avant garde” despite being (almost totally) raised on columns for the same reasons and looking at the same water through the same trees.

By the time of the Weissenhoff Exhibition, it was already clear who was hot and who was not. There was a mixture of luxury houses (Corbusier) and social housing (Oud, Stam, everybody else) but the former is remembered more than the latter. By 1927, it was clear that modernism was splitting into the functionalist camp where the role of architecture was to satisfy functions, and the aesthetic camp where the role of architecture was to express functions. The former was to become associated with communism, and perhaps rightly so. Maybe so, but this does not make it bad.  (Thanks cilo329!)

In The Bauhaus and America, Margaret Kentgens-Craig writes about the years 1919-1936 when Groupius and Mies van der Rohe were seeing to advance their careers in America, where they were looking for work, how they were in competition for jobs,  how Hitchcock and Johnson did them a huge favour with their 1932 MOMA exhibition and its very influential catalogue, and how Gropius was to spend the rest of his life living off his Bauhaus CV whilst Mies van der Rohe moved on.

The Swiss architect Hannes Meyer succeeded Groupius as the director of the Bauhaus and held the position for some two years.  … His most extensive measure was to realize his predecessor’s plans for an independent department of architecture at the Bauhaus by introducing a systematic course of study in the discipline. Based upon his own strict functionalist philosophy, he dismissed the establishment of aesthetic standards pursued under Gropius as formalism and thus reduced the status of artists and their work at the Bauhaus considerably. … he modified the curriculum to emphasise the value of practical work, raising the workshops production and gearing it towards serving the needs of the people rather than luxury-oriented buyers.

This was all in 1928-1930.

After an initial period of neutral observation, during which Henry-Russell Hitchcock praised Meyer and his partner Hans Wittwer and their entry in the 1928 Geneva Palace of Nations competition in two separate publications and other authors merely described Meyer neutrally, an image was formed that led to his exclusion for many years from the circle of seriously received Bauhaus architects.

THE INTERNATIONAL STYLE: ARCHITECTURE SINCE 1922, by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr., and Philip Johnson. W. W. Norton and Co. New York, 1932. $5.

I’ve ordered a copy. Here’s an original hardcover for $9,500, with an inscription from PJ himself.

Meyer is the only architect called an “anti-aesthetic functionalist” in Hitchcock and Johnson’s book, and that the book’s preface by Alfred Barr defines functionalism as the “utility-and-nothing-more theory of design” and Meyer a “fanatical functionalist” [.] (Click here for a paper by Ute Poerschke of Pennsylvania State University, discussing Meyer’s work as combining poetics and ethics.)

More than 40 years [after the International Style exhibition], Philip Johnson admitted (in Cook and Klotz’s “Conversations with Architects” p38) “Hannes Meyer was a communist and was a damned good architect and the more I see of Hannes Meyer, the greater man I think he was. But I don’t like what he said. there has been much criticism even recently about his design for the League of nations Building, for instance and article in Architectural Design on how much better Corbusier’s proposal was. I’m not so sure, but Meyer presented it in the worst way he could, an isometric, a totally meaningless design. You see, in those days I hated Hannes Meyer because I thought that the shit of the Neue Sachlichkeit Weltanschauung [the new objectivity] had something to do with architecture. The only mistake I made was to they to think that somehow the political opinion had something to do with the architecture.

(from The Bauhaus in America, page 128)

6 thoughts on “The New Objectivity

  1. Robert Burns

    Dear sir/madam,

    My name is Robert Burns and I am a current fourth year Architectural Technology student at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), Bolton Street. I am writing to ask for any help you may be able to provide me.

    I have selected to base the research for my thesis and dissertation around the topic of architectural design for existenzminimum architecture . It was while considering a specific theme within this topic to focus my study on that I came to the conclusion that the most worthwhile and beneficial option was to ask what subject required the most attention.

    I am currently researching design for existenzminimum architecture, and was looking for your advice on where would be an area of untapped research in this area.

    It is for this reason that I am asking for any suggestions that you may have on what would be an interesting and much needed direction for me to guide my research? Or, if you knew of any person who may also be of help?

    Thank you greatly for your time and effort, it is much appreciated.

    Regards,
    Robert Burns.

    Reply
  2. thomaswensing

    One comment, the Bauhaus did build before the ADGB school, the “Haus am Horn”, for instance. As you know the Bauhaus went through different phases and that building was done at Weimar.
    I also don’t know if you could say that the Törten housing development was a “Bauhaus-designed” project or not. I think it is a bit confusing to use the term Bauhaus designed; these architects would teach and have offices on the side in which they employed Bauhaus students.
    Another comment;
    There is an essay of Kenneth Frampton in Labour, work and Architecture in which he compares the League of Nations by Corbusier and Meyer, which you may find interesting.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks Thomas, you raise an interesting point. I just had another look at Haus am Horn and it’s a fine house. I’d always thought of it as Muche’s work, rather than the Bauhaus. But what then of Törten? As you say, whether or not a project gets included in the Bauhaus history or that of the architect seems a bit arbitrary. The Bauhaus architects wouldn’t be the first architects to teach and have offices on the side. It’s clearer with Mies. Tugendhat of 1930 is definitely his, not the Bauhaus’. Mies doesn’t seem to have been very interested in teaching, according to The Bauhaus and America by Margret Kentgens-Craig. “His directorship in Dessau and Berlin was an unusual step in the carer of a man who had never taught and did not seem extremely interested in doing so.” If you don’t know of it already, I recommend this book in return for your pointing me towards Frampton’s Labour, Work and Architecture. I’ll be interested to see what Frampton says, even though it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Graham

      Reply
      1. thomaswensing

        Thanks for pointing me towards “The Bauhaus and America”, I agree with her that Mies’ teaching career probably had more to do with his opportunism than with a real ‘calling’. There are a few interesting books on Mies’ teaching. “Teaching at the Bauhaus” by Rainer Wick, of course has this phenomenal quote by one of his former students:
        “Mies van der Rohe was the worst educator one could imagine, because – unlike, say Gropius – he was not interested in what possibilities existed or could be awakened in the student but only whether and to what extent the student was in a position to think “Miesisch” [German for Miesian] and to design within the limits of such a narrow framework!
        […] Mies’s method was an extreme case of “academy”. An academy built around a single master, that is precisely [what] the Bauhaus was originally founded to overcome.”
        Hubert Hoffmann

  3. Jonathan Strauss

    this borders on the reality behind the new york publicity machine and the ivy league educators.
    if you were an outsider, but considered or adopted as a friend, you were on well on your way.
    one can only wonder where zaha or big or…………. would be without it

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      yes, it was a gruesome tale of grovelling and brown-nosing. the pattern of universities offering refuge to refugee architects continues however. Patrik Schumaker at Princeton, after stints at Yale. Farshid Mousavi formerly of FOA at Harvard. Her formerly other half Alejandro Zaera-Polo at The Berlage Institute … that lady from UN Studio at RMIT. I wouldn’t underrate universities as mechanisms for creating an initial fan base of people who will buy the books, pay to attend the lectures, maybe purchase the goods – of which there is a huge range to choose from these days. Back in the day, the only commercially available “I’m-interested-in-architecture” signifiers were the LC armchair and chaise longue.

      Reply

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